Diversity with common cause

Reflections on the 2016 New Zealand hui

How to change complex systems?

On the 19th of February 2016, we ran a hui – a gathering, to consider the different theories of change that underlie how people work on social justice and environmental issues, or in short, how to make a better world. Over one hundred people came and heard twelve speakers’ perspectives on how change could be achieved, which then formed the basis of small group discussions. What you’re reading now is an attempt to draw out the main ideas that people shared in those group discussions and post-event feedback. These reflections show some ways that theory may inform our practice of change.

Many insights from the day were rooted in an acknowledgement that we are facing complex systemic issues like environmental destruction, social inequality, climate justice, neoliberalism, and colonization. And there isn’t a single obvious route to resolving these issues. In answer to this was an intention to get stuck in where we can, keep developing our theories of change and look for tipping points and emergent moments of rapid change. People were thinking about how to form networks that embrace a diversity of approaches to change; the value and danger of binaries; what it means to be “radical”; if the personal really is political (or just a distraction from the “real” work); and the importance of empathy, caring and compassion.

Supporting and connecting different approaches

Several speakers advocated radical and direct action, which was met with broad agreement that yes, we do need to make major changes, and as directly as possible. Tempering this however was a desire to engage people in a way that is accessible and effective. In some cases this may mean encouraging people to “choose sides”, but it may also mean appealing to values, and inviting people to consider what they do on a day to day basis; whether in business or organisational settings, or in our personal lives. Further there was a balance to be struck between accepting people (ourselves included) as they are and being clear on the need to come together for collective action. People reflected that we need to find aligned edges of struggles – and show solidarity with people’s efforts that differ from ours. For this to be effective, we may need to look to common roots of our issues, and grow a vision for change that is transformative from a deep level.

Understanding network dynamics gave general coherence to the idea of working in different ways. When faced, as we are, with complexity, connected networks allow for adaptability, rapid spreading of knowledge and an amplification of efforts to make change. This raised possibilities about how we can form connections, and shift to networked rather than group focused approaches. With this also came questions about how to facilitate networks and leadership that links and enables rather than controls. Fostering trust and addressing problematic power dynamics was considered to help with this.

Diversity and unity

Acknowledging the need for deep change and a broadly shared vision may help to grow the trust needed to support each other in values-based but always uncertain action. This could promote the seemingly paradoxical, but essential, combination of diversity and unity. By speaking to common values in how we try to engage people with issues, radical (and potentially polarizing) demands for change might find easier resonance with more liberal/mainstream approaches; and so strengthen the overall momentum for change.

In keeping with the desirability of a diverse but unified movement, another strong theme was to start with what we love to do, or are at least in a position to do. In this reflection there appeared to be a lessening of internal tension – people could start where they are and focus on some/one aspect of change work, even in a complex situation. If there is no one “right way” of creating change, then we do not need to force ourselves into actions that feel deeply uncomfortable. And conversely, if what we are doing does make sense/feel good, we needn’t have a fully coherent story behind it; as long as we are still looking for solidarity with the overall struggle for a better world rather than ignoring others with the same values.

Supporting our commitment

People’s reflections on their experience of the Theory of Change hui seemed to call on us to find our own ways to make change and, just as importantly, to find ways to work together. If we embody this we will grow movements that welcome others in. These insights suggest we should not get so stuck on our end goals that we create enemies of possible allies, nor should we hold such high expectations of ourselves as to become demoralized and burnt out. Instead, it empowers us to work with what feels good; and to be glad of and support what others are doing, – knowing that in doing so we may increase our potential to make change.

Some lingering issues that people were pondering included:

  1. What does it mean to be radical? Is this the same as being confrontational?
  2. What is the role of compassion and caring in our work? How should we balance the immediate care of ourselves and others with changing the system? Can we balance these?
  3. Are binaries useful for seeing issues clearly and moving forward as a society or do they simplify and potentially divide? Is division a bad thing?
  4. How do we enable and empower others, especially if we feel we “know” the answer and want them to “see it our way!”


For a summary of what people thought of the running of the day and how it could be followed up, read “Where to from here?